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Burns: Gov’s proposed state aid hike for area schools below state average


POTSDAM - Area school superintendents have received their initial state aid projections from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office and unless the state legislature comes through with significant amounts of additional aid they say drafting spending plans for 2015 is not going to be easy.

Potsdam Central School Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said his district’s 1.97 percent aid increase won’t even be enough to cover what is going to be an estimated $300,000 increase in insurance premiums for next year.

“Our increase in health care costs will be over $300,000. We are very disappointed,” Mr. Brady said. “We had hoped for more.”

Although the state provided 3.8 percent more for public schools, the average increase for St. Lawrence County schools was 2.7 percent, according to Thomas R. Burns, St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

Also, the state continues to impose costly mandates and reduce funding through its Gap Elimination Adjustment, he said.

“This is the same old system and it appears to be as unfair as ever,” Mr. Burns said. “It’s not unexpected, but it’s disappointing.”

Educators now have to hope that state lawmakers restore more funding to public schools, particularly this year when the state has a budget surplus instead of a deficit.

Mr. Brady said what makes the situation worse is the fact that this year’s “2 percent tax cap” is actually a 1.46 percent tax cap, explaining that when tax cap legislation was passed the cap was established as 2 percent or the consumer price index, whichever was lower.

While the cap will vary for each district based on the number of exemptions it can claim, Mr. Brady said he wasn’t expecting Potsdam to see its cap be much higher.

“I don’t think we’ll have many exemptions this year,” he said, explaining that makes the need for legislative assistance even more important than usual.

“We will now need to implore our legislators for assistance in building a more supportive and realistic state budget for schools,” he said. “For the potential alternative is more lost opportunity for students and reduced employment in our communities.”

Mr. Brady said the district’s 1.97 percent proposed increase actually translates to $221,600, but of that 40 percent is categorical aid that the district won’t actually receive unless it spends money first and is reimbursed in areas like textbooks and transportation.

Foundation aid was once again frozen, with the only real increase in aid coming in the form of $133,152 restored to the school’s Gap Elimination Adjustment, which still sits at $1,451,669.

“This will bring the total amount of aid we have lost since 2009-2010 to over $10 million,” he said. “At the same time that our school will face yet another large gap in revenues over expenditures with the governor’s budget proposal, much needed monies will be diverted away for new programs.”

Mr. Brady said that while expansion of prekindergarten, supporting highly effective teachers, and building technology are “laudable initiatives” now is not the time for such initiativeswith schools all over the state struggling to stay afloat, .

“Despite cutting 48 jobs and numerous programs over the last five years to help the state with a budget gap, we continue to find ourselves underfunded, as we receive less state aid now than in 2008-2009,” he said.

“The governor’s lack of support for more equitable aid distribution or reducing unfunded mandates is equally troubling. Until we face these critical issues with fortitude, many schools will face the prospect of insolvency.”

With building considered the district’s aid actually decreases -2.08 percent, due to a capital project coming off of its books.

“But those in the past have brought us very little return in the past,” he said.

The Massena Central School District, under Gov. Cuomo’s proposal, would see a 2.62 percent, or $582,494 increase, in 2014-15. But Interim Superintendent William W. Crist the state needs to look at its foundation aid formula and get rip of the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

“I know there’s been progress to eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment, but it’s still not enough. The fact is, we haven’t fixed foundation aid and we haven’t eliminated the Gap Elimination Adjustment yet.,” Mr. Crist said.

The district would receive $,653,751 in foundation aid under the governor’s proposal, the same amount they received in 2013-14. Foundation aid is the biggest piece of state revenue for the district, he said, compared to expense based aid such as BOCES and transportation.

“As much as we should be thankful that there is attention toward education when there are reductions in other areas of state government, we haven’t fixed the problems that existed five years ago. Let’s get rid of the Gap Elimination Adjustment and fix the foundation aid formula. “The entire formula needs to be fixed, period. It’s like you’re buying new sails for a ship that’s leaking profusely. Let’s fix the hull of the ship,” he said. “It’s not enough.”

He said, while it’s admirable that Gov. Cuomo wants to fund technology improvements, that’s not necessary in every school district.

Mr. Crist said he and other superintendents are hopeful the numbers will increase by the time the final budget is approved.

“We just met with superintendents in the county. The concerns that exist in Massena are pretty prevalent in the county. I think people are still banking on the fact that it’s an election year. Certainly legislators are doing everything they can for their constituents at home,” he said.

Now that they have the governor’s proposal, Mr. Crist said they can start filling in some numbers in their budget proposal. Mr. Crist said he and Business Manager Nickolas Brouillette have met with the school board’s Finance Committee and “we’ve had some predictions. Nick’s done a good job of making some of these predictions. They held fairly true.”

According to the governor’s budget proposal, the St. Lawrence Central School District would receive a 7.5 percent, or $1 million increase in aid. But Business Manager Karen Locey said that number is deceptive.

“Although it shows a 7.5 percent increase, most of that has to do with building aid,” she said. “With building aid, we have three projects ending this year. We do expect an increase in building aid, but we also expect an increase in bond payments. Really, that’s not going to make a difference.”

The district received $1.9 million in building aid in 2013-14, and Gov. Cuomo has proposed an increase to $2.5 million in 2014-15.

“Building aid went up quite a bit in one year. I think that was our biggest adjustment to this point. Most of that is because we start receiving building aid on projects we’re working on. Once the project is complete, we report it on our annual report and aid will start flowing in,” she said.

Without building aid, the increase drops down to 3.91 percent or $461,475.

The governor’s proposal also calls for an increase in transportation aid, from $1,456,628 in 2013-14 to $1,589,593 in 2014-15. But Ms. Locey said that may not happen.

“I don’t foresee the transportation aid increasing as much as what they’re showing,” she said.

“The increase is mainly due to building aid. Right now, I don’t foresee some of these numbers changing a lot,” Ms. Locey said.

Canton Central School Superintendent William A. Gregory said the district will face a roughly $1.38 million shortfall in next year’s budget based on the new state aid figures. Most of the extra state revenue is for building aid rather than for operational expenses.

The district expects an estimated $274,000 more in operational aid, but most of that has to be used for specific categories, he said.

“That’s not sufficient enough to meet our known costs going forward,” Mr. Gregory said. “We have to continue our own analysis and see what happens at the state level.”

At Colton-Pierrepont Central School, Superintendent Joseph A. Kardash said his district’s aid increase of 5.24 percent or $100,797 isn’t enough to put together a budget without making cuts.

“The governor touts that he turned a $1.7 billion deficit into a revenue surplus this year. If that is true, then why do we still see a gap elimination adjustment?” he asked. “What gap are we still eliminating?”

Colton-Pierrepont saw its Gap Elimination Adjustment decreased by $27,393, leaving the state still taking $265,864 from the school.

“These runs were disappointing because they barely put a dent in the Gap Elimination Adjustment,” he said. “Schools cannot raise needed revenue through taxes when we face a tax cap with a calculation that starts below 1.5 percent.”

Like Mr. Brady, Mr. Kardash said the legislature has its work cut out for them.

“If the legislature doesn’t find a way to make significantly more progress, we will see more programs lost due to rising fixed costs and lack of revenues,” he said.

Norwood-Norfolk Central School Superintendent James M. Cruikshank agreed with Mr. Kardash and said his initial question when he saw the governor’s proposal was what is the state doing with its surplus money.

“He’s claimed there’s a $2 billion surplus. Also with that, there is a situation where they haven’t actually funded the schools to the level that they even promised,” he said. “We were a little hopeful the governor’s proposal, since he was touting a $2 billion surplus, would result in him sharing the wealth.”

Under Gov. Cuomo’s proposal, Norwood-Norfolk would see a 1.95 percent, or $223,033 increase in their state aid. But, as in years past, Mr. Cruikshank said the increases haven’t kept pace with what the state has kept from schools through the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

“We’ve lost $3,688,595 in four years. That equates to $3,899 per student,” Mr. Cruikshank said, a number that’s made even more difficult to absorb with a frozen foundation aid formula.

“Since 2007 when they froze it, Norwood-Norfolk is owed over $15 million by the state,” he said. “What jumps out at me is the fact that he’s projecting a $2 billion surplus and yet we don’t have the money to continue to operate. A lot of his incentives this year with Pre-Kindergarten and technology are certainly admirable. However, there’s not enough operational money. That’s the problem.”

Because of a lack of funding, he said they’ve lost 23 positions across the district in four years.

“In a district this size, 23 positions is noticeable. That’s how we’ve been able to keep the budget in check and taxes in check. We haven’t gone out with dramatic tax increases,” he said, noting last year’s was 2.99 percent. They used just over $1 million from their reserves and fund balance to keep that low, he said.

What they’re not receiving in state aid can’t be picked up through the local share, according to Mr. Cruikshank.

“About 60 percent of our budget is state and federal aid. I really will look to hold our Assembly and our state Senate responsible,” he said.

Ogdensburg City School District Board of Education President Ronald N. Johnson expressed similar disappointments.

The Ogdensburg City School District is slated receive a $284,831, or 1.3 percent, increase in aid next year under the governor’s proposal.

Ogdensburg Board of Education President Ronald N. Johnson said Wednesday he was “shocked” at the governor’s state aid proposal.

“It’s certainly not enough to run our business,” Mr. Johnson said. “We are an impoverished district. We have cut our budget right to the bone. We have laid off nearly 60 employees over the last five years.”

Like other districts, Ogdensburg has been dipping into its fund balance to offset increased costs. “Our fund balance has been cut below what we should have it cut, and we’ve cut from every department we cold already,” he said. “We are at our wit’s end.”

He said the district will send letters to Albany and state representatives before the budget is passed.

“But those in the past have brought us very little return in the past,” he said.

Benny Fairchild, Susan Mende and Amanda Purcell contributed to this report.

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